Running on fumes

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Short-handed Rockets drop one to Pistons 115-107

If there's ever a night for a potential title contender to lose a game to a sub-.500 team, this would be it. The Houston Rockets went into the Toyota Center tonight off of three games in four nights completely exhausted and without Russell Westbrook (rest) and Eric Gordon (knee scope). You never want to excuse a loss like this for a contender, but it's kind of hard to hold this one against the Rockets, when Mike D'Antoni himself admitted there was an element of exhaustion for the team tonight.

Even James Harden, famous for never admitting when he's hurt, admitted there was an element of "schedule loss" to Houston's performance tonight.

"It is what it is," Harden said after the game. "We all know how difficult it is so we have to continue to fight through."

The Rockets shot 13 for 45 from three-point range with seemingly all of the misses coming short. They looked sluggish and a step slow on defense as a team and weren't always running back in transition.

When players like Christian Wood (11 points and 12 rebounds in only 21 minutes) and Derrick Rose (20 points and 12 assists) are out-efforting you, sometimes all that's left is tipping your cap to the opponent.

"Like I said, they played well," said D'Antoni. "We just - you get behind, then you try to get back in there and a couple of things go wrong. We just didn't have the mental energy to take control of the game and get it over with."

Star of the game: James Harden gave an admirable effort tonight, but it was apparent from the beginning of the game that his tank was empty. Harden logged 39 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, and 1 steal on 14 of 33 shooting from the field, 1 of 4 shooting from three-point range, and 7 of 8 shooting from the free throw line. After posting consecutive 50-point games and carrying the team to their last two victories, it's hard to blame Harden for being as tired as he was.

Honorable mention: Chris Clemons took advantage of the opportunity that was given to him in stride. Clemons posted 17 points 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block on 6 of 12 shooting from the field and 5 of 11 shooting from three-point range. It's hard to imagine Clemons cracking the rotation when Westbrook and Gordon come back, but he's done a great job with the playing time that he's been given.

Key moment: James Harden scored 17 of his 39 points in the third quarter and 11 of his points came in the final 5 minutes. Harden helped the Rockets cut it to a 10-point game. Even though his effort ended up being fruitless, it was yet another example of the kind of responsibility Harden has to carry in this offense every night.

Up next: The Rockets play the San Antonio Spurs in Houston at 7:00 p.m. on Monday.

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 113.3 (4th)

Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.9 (9th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 113.5 (T-4th)

Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)

Net RTG: +4.1 (8th)

Biggest developments:

1. Rockets snap losing streak at 4 games

There are few things more dark and scary in the NBA than when a title contender goes on an extended losing streak. It may not be as dark as a possible career ending injury, but it's definitely near the top of the list. The team becomes a part of the national discussion in the way it doesn't want to be, fan bases get ornery, and nervous whispers of about the head coach become a thing. It's the natural order of things of a team with high expectations.

To put it in less subtly, if Houston hadn't snapped their losing streak by now, there might have been a different number one for "biggest developments" this week. It was important Houston get two wins under their belt just so the dark cloud isn't hovering over them.

2. Russell Westbrook continues his January tear

The only positive development during Houston's losing streak is Russell Westbrook finding his rhythm within Houston's offense. Granted, a lot of it has come out of necessity as you'll see in the next development. However, given how shaky Westbrook has looked during parts of the season, this is still a good development for Houston.

Russell Westbrook in January:

31.9 PPG

8.5 APG

8.5 RPG

2.0 SPG

58.0% True Shooting

A big reason for this bump in efficiency may be the dramatic shift in Westbrook's shot profile. In January, Westbrook is only taking 2.4 threes per game - less than half of what he was attempting per game last season (5.6). This is too big of a development to break down in a couple of paragraphs here, so I'll be writing more about Westbrook later this week.

3. Uhh... James Harden?

At the time of writing this, James Harden is listed as questionable to play on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets due to a bruised left thigh contusion. Harden injured it in the game against the Timberwolves and elected to play, but effectively took a third row seat to Russell Westbrook as he was cooking ('back seat' is not a good enough term to describe how much Harden ceded the offense). Due to the injury, Harden was predictably awful (12 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 3 turnovers on 3 of 13 shooting from the field, 0 of 6 from three-point range, and a plus-minus of -7).

However, even before the injury, Harden's not been himself as of late. While Westbrook has flourished in the month of January, Harden's had a bit of a downturn.

James Harden in January:

29.0 PPG

7.4 RPG

6.8 APG

35.6% from the field

25.2% from three-point range

Harden's still getting gaudy boxscore numbers, but he's lacked his usual uber-efficiency. His three-point stroke has completely alluded him and Russell Westbrook had had to become Houston's superman for them to even have a chance in some of these games. He'll probably be fine long-term, but it might not be the worst idea for Houston to rest him at least once on the upcoming road trip along with Westbrook. Harden is playing the most minutes per game (37.0) of his career since 2015-16 (38.1). The Rockets had mentioned there would be a rest plan for both Harden and Westbrook, but so far, it's only applied to Westbrook.

As mentioned in the last 'State of the Rockets', Harden's also taken a step back defensively recently and that has not changed. Perhaps giving Harden a rest game will yield more maximum effort games and aid his shooting efficiency at the same time.

Week of games in review:

Houston understandably got killed for dropping that game to the Oklahoma City on Monday, but they had honestly played three quarters of really solid basketball. Like a lot of games this season, it was one quarter that killed them. Houston allowed a staggering 41 points to the Thunder while only scoring 20 of their own. Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Dennis Schroeder absolutely had their way against Houston's defense (combined for 76 points on 25 of 53 shooting from the field).

The Denver game was one of those "It could get really dark if Houston loses this" games. With no Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, or Michael Porter Jr., that was a complete 'give me' game for Houston that they could not afford to lose. Fortunately, the outcome of the game was never in doubt and Houston managed to force it into garbage time in the fourth quarter.

The Minnesota game wasn't pretty for Houston, but again, it went in the win column and that means a lot for Houston at the moment. It was also uncomfortable to watch Shabazz Napier, Karl-Anthony Towns, and James Harden all have scary injury moments in the game. However, Harden's injury also contributed to what will go down as Westbrook's best game in a Rockets' uniform to date. Westbrook logged a fantastic 45 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds on 16 of 27 shooting from the field and 13 of 13 from the free throw line. Westbrook won't always have games like this, but when he does, it's definitely important to appreciate the heights he can reach as a player.

Questions for the coming week:

1. Will James Harden sit out against the Nuggets?

The injury may not be that serious, but it gives Houston the opportunity to give Harden a quality rest game before having to close out a tough road trip. It may also help him work through his shooting slump. The tricky balance will be deciding when to rest Russell Westbrook on this back-to-back if Harden does indeed take the Denver game off. Considering he's not listed on the injury report, the obvious takeaway would be that Westbrook is going to play in Denver and rest in Utah, but this only gives Houston one available superstar for each game (assuming Harden sits in Denver).

Utah and Denver are tough opponents (at altitude) and both have cases of being as good, if not better than Houston this year.

2. Can Houston secure the tiebreaker against Denver?

The Rockets currently have a 2-1 season series lead over Denver so upcoming game will be for the tiebreaker. This is really important as both teams will likely be jockeying for positioning in the West all season long and if Houston can grab it, it gives them a leg up at the end of the season if the team records are even. Denver also just lost to Houston on Wednesday and will presumably have a healthier rotation to throw at Houston today.

3. Will Danuel House or Eric Gordon steal the starting spot back from Ben McLemore?

It's gone under the radar, but Ben McLemore's minutes have slowly been ticking down for almost two weeks now.

@ Memphis - 38 minutes

vs. Portland - 24 minutes

vs. Los Angeles - 24 minutes

vs. Oklahoma City - 20 minutes

vs. Denver - 18 minutes

@ Minnesota - 16 minutes

Ben McLemore has been a nice find for Houston this season, but his promotion to the starting unit was always a bit bizarre. Mike D'Antoni justified it as a way to get Austin Rivers more minutes and a way to slide Danuel House in at backup power forward to get P.J. Tucker some rest, but only the former has been true. Starting lineups don't matter as much in the NBA anymore, but having a lineup of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Ben McLemore is asking to get back-cut to death. Also, a starter is still traditionally supposed to be one of the team's six most important players, which McLemore is not. Gordon and House are both better players, and more importantly, better fits.

It'll be interesting to see if D'Antoni decides to pull the plug on this lineup.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome